Cary Audio SLP-308 Linestage and Cinema 2 Amplifier

Equipment report
Tubed power amplifiers
Cary Audio Design SLP-308
Cary Audio SLP-308 Linestage and Cinema 2 Amplifier

Cary Audio Design has slowly evolved from a company that mainly focused on exotic, single-ended tube gear to one that focuses on exotic, single-ended tube gear and a growing range of other, not-so exotic components. These include somewhat more conventional tube preamps and amps, a pair of speakers, and most recently, forays into the realm of home theater, including a multichannel controller and lineup of solid-state amplifiers.

The SLP-308 is the company’s entry-level preamp, and though the Cary Web site refers to it as a “full function” preamplifier, I would call it a linestage model without a phonostage. It’s a straightforward design operating around a pair of 12AU7 tubes, and sells for a smidge under $2000. By “straightforward” I mean functional, value-oriented, and unadorned, except for the frontpanel output meters, a relatively rare commodity on today’s gear. They don’t really do anything, but if you imagine the 308 without them, what you’ll envision is a very plain chassis. With the meters and their soft ocean-spray blue lighting, the 308 takes on a chic vintage vibe. The chassis comes in black or silver, and a small remote for volume and muting is also included.

The owner’s manual suggests a 100- hour warm-up period, which I found to be pretty accurate. While the preamp’s basic sound is certainly recognizable fresh from the box, it opens up considerably over the initial playing time.

As it turns out, those meters suggest more than a vintage look; they promise a slightly retro musical experience. While some of today’s tube gear tries not to sound much like vacuum tubes, the SLP-308 does, and very nicely so. This linestage bathes instruments in an understated but distinctly golden glow. Not to the degree that, say, products from a company like Conrad-Johnson are noted for, but golden nonetheless, and rather like the way that first sip of wine might produce a slight overall “glow” if taken on an empty stomach. (Need I add that this is not necessarily an unpleasant thing?) This quality was at once in evidence when I played Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot CD [Nonesuch], a reference rock disc and one that I heard on nearly every system I auditioned at the recent CES. From Jeff Tweedy’s rather sweet, slightly nasal vocal to John Stirratt’s chugging bass line to Leroy Bach’s sparse piano to Glenn Kotche’s tasty drumming, the entire spectrum has a lovely, rather romantic quality.

Excellent textures, too, something that, to a certain degree, goes hand-inglove with the warm tonality. You really sense the musicians at work here. Strummed electric guitar strings vibrating over the fretboard and pickups, thick, plucked bass notes, wooden drum sticks striking heads, and the swishclutch of a hi-hat were all delivered with a great deal of tactile presence, which brings to all recordings that hard-todefine sense of life or lifelikeness that we hope for from our systems.

Classical fans will hear these qualities on something like the Janis/Dorati rendition of the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto [Mercury/Speakers Corner LP], another CES regular. Via Manley’s Steelhead phono section, strings were velvety, brass brassy, and the piano both powerfully percussive and liltingly delicate, the latter maybe even a little too creamy rich in the bottom registers, which at times came across a bit thick, losing the last bits of definition on individual notes.

Indeed, the 308 is not the highestresolution model I’ve heard, though its omissions are measured in degrees that I consider more “hi-fi” than musical in nature. Although its depth is quite good and it creates a convincing enough sense of holography, the third dimension seems to end rather abruptly about twothirds of the way into the orchestra. Likewise, stage width is slightly sheered off, as are dynamic extremes—at least those at the highest edge of the spectrum. I attribute this to a faint but audible layer of background grain that doesn’t quite allow the music to emerge from the darkest of backgrounds.

Imaging, by the way, is really spoton. To me, it’s more natural than what I hear from the majority of solid-state models in this price range in that, rather than being flat and defined as if by a professor’s laser pointer, the images have a nice sense of dimensionality and 360- degree air around them. Also notable is that sense of “pace” that one of our readers mocks in this issue’s Letters section. Through the 308 there is a fine sense of rhythmic drive and of the musicians interacting together, which suggests that, though the widest dynamic peaks may not be scaled, this unit’s relative dynamic scaling is very good.

I listened to a wide variety of music over Cary’s SLP-308—always a good sign—and sharing notes on Figaro, Sinatra, or Jeff Buckley would add nothing to what I’ve said. I like this linestage. It’s musically involving in ways that really count for me, and has to be counted as a true high-end value.